By Felix Moore / openDemocracy
- Warning: Contains language some people may find offensive.
“No matter what they say,” Miss Major Griffin-Gracy tells me, “the bearded, old, white, grey-haired, sickly, fucking bastards that run the country are always out to get us.”
Major is best known for her participation in the 1969 Stonewall riots in New York, but to refer to her only as a Stonewall veteran does a disservice to her decades as a legendary trans community organiser, spanning everything from AIDS activism to prison abolition. Even at the age of 82 (although she archly insists: “I’m only 21!”) Major is still active, providing a much-needed place of refuge in the House of GG, a retreat and educational centre that she founded for trans women of colour in Little Rock, Arkansas.
She is speaking to me to mark the release of her book, ‘Miss Major Speaks: Conversations with a Black Trans Revolutionary’, formatted as a series of conversations between Major and her personal assistant, journalist Toshio Meronek. Major’s personality shines through unfiltered even in the table of contents, with chapter headings such as ‘Fuck a Butterfly. Embrace the Caterpillar’ and ‘Nobody’s Token Black Bitch’.
The syntax too is uniquely her own. Major makes a point of using the word “gurl” to refer to trans women, especially the many trans women to whom she has become a surrogate mother-figure. Asked why the distinction in spelling matters to her, she says: “Because it’s still the difference between us and them.”
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She had her greatest taste of tokenism in 2019, the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots. She’s one of their best-known living participants, and everyone from CNN to Home Depot was eager to book her. But decades of involvement in the trans and queer community has taught her a deep suspicion of professed support by brands, corporations and politicians.
Major’s lifetime has seen an enormous shift in corporate attitudes to the LGBTQ community. When she ran a needle exchange van in San Francisco during the AIDS epidemic, “[US manufacturer] Clorox didn’t want us using their products, because they didn’t want to be associated with the trannies and fags,” she writes. Now, of course, Clorox has a rainbow logo on Twitter for June, Pride month in the US, and proclaims its “longtime commitment to #inclusion”.
Her perspective has never been more pertinent than in today’s sometimes surreal atmosphere. At the same time that trans people are appearing in Calvin Klein or Mastercard adverts, trans families are fleeing Florida under threat of having their children removed by the state. With companies like Target backtracking on elements of their Pride campaigns in response to right-wing pushback, and Starbucks allegedly banning Pride decorations in its stores, the conditionality of corporate allyship is only becoming clearer.
It’s been almost a decade since the so-called “Transgender Tipping Point” in 2014, when Laverne Cox’s Time magazine cover signalled a sudden increase in the visibility of trans people in the media. Today, the promise of visibility seems less unambiguously positive.
“It was really cute when they put Laverne Cox on the cover of Time,” Major says in her book, “but I can’t help but think, what has that done for the average gurl on the street?” And, indeed, visibility can bring more dangers than benefits. “What’s important is the ‘day of visibility’?” she says to me, with sarcasm. “Oh good, the day we’re gonna step out and tell the world: ‘Look, I’m here!’ And then I’m gonna get killed.”
Trans women of colour such as Major are more often valorised after death than materially supported in life. Images of Marsha P Johnson and Sylvia Rivera appear on T-shirts and tote bags today, but Johnson’s possible homicide in 1992 remains unsolved, and Rivera was homeless when she died in 2002.
‘Miss Major Speaks’ is scathingly dismissive of this kind of posthumous commemoration: “At some point the motherfuckers decided the thing to do was to give dead trans women a bronze plaque in the sidewalk and call it a day. So if they try to pull that shit, what you do is say, ‘Woo – thank you very much, that’s so very nice of you, but the thing is I don’t know anyone who’s ever lived on a plaque.’”
Although Major is best known for her participation in the Stonewall riots, to her, “Stonewall was just another night”. Her book sheds light on aspects of her life that are less widely discussed. While incarcerated, she befriended Frank ‘Big Black’ Smith, one of the leaders of the 1971 Attica Prison rebellion.
“He was such a doll,” she tells me. “I was locked up in the hole [solitary confinement] where they put him. And we struck up a conversation. In time, that got around to what he was doing it for. And I liked that they were standing up for everybody’s rights, not just his.”
Meronek writes: “With Black’s mentorship, Major began to formalize her thoughts around power and oppression, including her understanding of prisons as a twisted extension of slavery.” Major further formalised those thoughts in her involvement with the San Francisco based Transgender, Gender-Variant & Intersex Justice Project (TGIJP), and in conversations with Black political activist Angela Davis, with whom she agreed that, Major writes, “the system completely needs to be dismantled, and we need to come up with a better safety system than prisons and the police.”
These aspects of Major’s life may be less palatable to companies like Home Depot, as might a 2019 video in which she described police as “like aliens from another planet coming here to consume and swallow us up and then spit us out as bones”, but Major is uninterested in palatability.
“I don’t know who invited those motherfuckers to be in the Pride parade,” she continues. “Why would you invite a shark to swim with you naked in the sea? Because you like sharks?”
Major’s life story should remind us of the hollowness of conflating queer liberation with our representation in TV shows or ad campaigns. For most of her life, queer and trans people did not receive even the most token support from the likes of Target, Clorox or Home Depot. Our survival depended on people like Major running needle exchanges, corresponding with incarcerated trans people, and nursing AIDS patients whose own families refused to touch them.
It is frightening to see brands like Target and Starbucks backpedal when faced with a right-wing backlash. Even more so to see US states pass restrictions on gender-affirming care, and our own UK government threaten to undermine trans people’s legal recognition. But ‘Miss Major Speaks’ reminds us that trans people have survived without corporate allies, doctors willing to prescribe hormones, and legal recognition before. If need be, we will do it again.
Felix Moore has written about trans issues for The Observer and trans history for Pink News. He has been published in ‘Murmurations: Journal of Transformative Systemic Practice’, writing about autism and trans identity. Read more from this author at the link below.